The first Fans Liaison Committee meeting of the post-Pearson era took place on Thursday 16th August, 5 days into the 2007/2008 season. The usual format of a roundtable discussion with members firing questions sequentially was suspended for this meeting to allow the new chairman, Paul Duffen, to introduce himself and outline his plans for the club and see what the FLC was all about.
The new man in the hot-seat sat before us, dressed in a black pinstripe suit paired with a red silk tie, looking confident though a little cautious. Opening with the standard new chairman script line about being excited to be here, he went on to acknowledge that Adam Pearson casts a large shadow over his chairmanship, saying that many new chairman are appointed following a disastrous on-field period or economic crisis. Following a popular chairman who presided over a period of unprecedented success may well be “the toughest job in football” he ventured.
He stated that his main job role is to support the manager (which neatly pre-empted any awkward questions about the selection of Danny Coles) and went on to say he thinks an awful lot of rubbish has been written about the squad and that we already have a ‘squad of capable footballers’. He feels that the players under performed last year and that we should have finished around 15th in the table, but that the spine of the team now has more quality. He then exclaimed that given the clubs less than stellar history that struggling in the Championship isn’t a bad place to be, but that of course he wants to put the club in the Premiership. To do that will require ‘sustained incremental investment and improvement’ over the next three years.
Though the wage bill has already risen from £4.5m to £6m, that investment extends beyond just paying transfer fees and wages, and he pointed to the refurbishment of the Millhouse Woods Lane facilities ‘to Premiership standard’ and the installation of Pro Zone 3 technology (few Championship clubs who haven’t recently been in the Premier League have this) as evidence of attempts to grow the club on all levels. The manager has been backed financially and though frustrated by a lack of available players, some clubs are reluctant to let players go if it impacts their strength in depth, however “there isn’t a single signing that hasn’t been made if he [Phil Brown] has wanted to make it” where a player has been available.
Both the chairman and manager appear to have learnt lessons about releasing the names of transfer targets to the media with a deal nowhere near completion. DuffMan says he wasn’t prepared for the relentless media speculation regarding transfers and his efforts to be media friendly backfired when deals didn’t happen. “Now we keep quiet about targets” said the chairman in a tacit admission of naiveté earlier in his tenure, stating the name of a player we’d recently bid for that the press hadn’t gotten hold of, just as well as his club refused to let him go. The chairman has met with John Meehan from the Hull Daily Mail following the reporting of the Cresswell transfer saga, which the club were unhappy with. As far as Duffen is concerned, the club had tried to be diplomatic about the reason the transfer broke down, having been told explicitly by the club surgeon to not sign this player on a three year deal on the back of major reconstructive knee surgery. Leeds, the players employer at the time had no complaints over the way City had conducted themselves, so the chairman was surprised to see that Stoke boss Tony Pulis had been given a soapbox to attack Hull City’s handling of this matter, and was particularly dismayed that our club was not given a right to reply in the local paper. In only 11 weeks the new boss has recognised what the rest of us have known for years, that the Hull Daily Mail isn’t particularly supportive of it’s local football club. “It’s an editorial thing, so ultimately is the responsibility of John Meehan, who we’ve spoken to about this. It’s a great shame, especially as I think Phil Buckingham is a good football reporter.” Duffen hinted that he’d have no compunction about playing hardball with the local press, as did Pearson on occasion, but said he wants the relationship with the HDM to be benign.
Regarding the Juninho debacle, the chairman said that Phil Brown now regrets organising the HDM to photograph the clubs’ meeting with the Brazilian, who agreed terms with the City but the deal imploded when the players agent later said they wanted £2M should Juninho help City into the Premiership. Though there is frustration at the slow progress of the squad rebuilding it was stated that this is not a City-centric problem, and that most Championship clubs were sitting on their hands during the summer. Many agents thought the Premier League’s announcement of solidarity payments to second tier clubs would lead to a great deal of milk being suckled from the teats of the Championship cash cow, but the speculated £5m for each club turned out to be just £700K. The difficulty in attracting players to the club was acknowledged, “this is not a sexy football club or a sexy city to live in” said Paul ruefully.
Duffen understands cynicism on the part of fans as regards the summer player recruitment drive but insists there is no need to worry about the new owners motivation for buying the club, saying that there is nothing but financial risk in it for him at this stage. Sure, money could be made if the club reaches the Premier League but at this point the chairman says the £10M+ paid to buy the club has “bought me nothing but a raft of liabilities, such as players wage contracts and rent agreements, I’ve bought nothing tangible’. The evasion of a question about a mortgage charge taken against the SMC’s stadium lease asked on KCFM aroused suspicion, but it was answered here. When you buy a business, Duffen explains, you inherit the last owners credit facilities, and when Pearson owned the club, he had financial guarantees underwritten by someone else.
This debenture agreement, taken out with RBS, this consortium’s bankers, provides security on the two businesses (Hull City and the SMC) and the club’s facilities (Millhouse Woods Lane and the Priory Road academy grounds). This is, says the chairman, a normal business arrangement, and says that in order to take credit card payments, the club had to provide a security interest for £500,000 to the bank. Neither the club or SMC have any debt, insists DuffMan. Asked why he didn’t give this answer on KCFM, he said he thought had, but this wasn’t the case, he said he wasn’t prepared to discuss financial dealings. The question evidently took him by surprise when asked on live radio, “it was a bit leftfield” he said, but the lack of an answer meant the question cropping up again was inevitable.
Though supporter cynicism can be healthy the new chairman was surprised to receive angry letters just four days into the job. Asked to elaborate about the ‘hate mail’ mentioned by the Hull Daily Mail, he told of a number of anonymous letters (from the same person) that contained threats, but added that Adam Pearson would get these too every week but chose not to read them. Duffen’s curiosity got the better of him so he read them. One letter complained that the chairman hadn’t responded to earlier correspondence, somewhat difficult when it was sent anonymously!
Whereas Adam Pearson fretted over the reduction in fans taking up season pass offers, the new man figures this can work to the club’s benefit if we attract more people to pay on the day, as they’d be paying more for their ticket than a passholder.
The new owners are looking to spruce up the KC Stadium, which will be 5 years old in December. The West Stand reception has already had a makeover to make it look more impressive to visitors. New machinery for cleaning the concourses has been purchased and price quotes have been obtained to jet wash the cladding around the ground. The big screen is part of the ‘winding up of investment in property maintenance’ and its operation is a work in progress. The complete installation of the screen, which includes installing new cabling, cameras and software and syncing it with the PA systems, has been done in 5 weeks when it was anticipated it would take 12. As the screens operators become more familiar with it’s use then we should see big improvements, the club plan to show past game highlights as well as replays for the game in progress (within strict Football League guidelines about what can be shown). The screen is described as the best you can buy and it is hoped Sky will pay the SMC to rent it for televised Rugby games rather than install their own. The SMC paid for the big telly, though since investment in that company is provided by Mr. Duffen it was effectively him that bought it.
The Tigers Co-Op asked if selling shares in the club to fans were part of the consortiums long term plans, no was the concise answer. When asked what benefit the fans holding shares would get a Co-Op member said that some fans like attending AGM’s and could use them to ask questions of the board, but since the club grant access to the chairman through open forums and the FLC, attending an AGM would give them no further access. Financially, fans holding shares makes no sense either concluded the chairman.
Commercial Director Andy Dawson was in attendance at this meeting and a few brief questions were directed at him, one being a follow up to a suggestion that the matchday programme be made slimmer and the price reduced (it’s currently £3) to increase interest in the City magazine. Offering his 2 pence worth, Chairman Duffen questioned the wisdom of this and asked what the price of programme was at other Championship clubs, £3 was the answer. “Irresistible economics suggest we should match the industry standard”. That told ‘em.
That was pretty much it, next month the usual bombardment of questions about smoking pens and pie prices will resume but tonight was meant as a gentle introduction to the FLC meetings for the new chairman and once his initial caution melted away, he seemed to enjoy the frank and open nature of proceedings and said he’ll be back for more. First impressions of the new chairman? Quite good. He appeared naïve in his first few weeks and maybe that’s understandable, he’s never run a football club before and by his own admission it’s a very different animal from running a PLC. He appears to have learnt a lot in a short space of time, though there is undoubtedly much for him to still learn. Adam Pearson had the benefit of seeing the workings of a football club from the inside before he bought Hull City. It’s too early to have concrete views at this early stage, but a willingness to attend this meeting and others is a positive sign.